Small busi­ness­es need to be con­cerned about gen­der-fueled, polit­i­cal and /or racial office water cool­er talk. At the same time, both employ­ees and their employ­ers need to under­stand their rights in the work­place.

The Dangers of Water Cooler Talk

Small Busi­ness Trends spoke with Debra Fried­man, a part­ner at Coz­en O’Connor’s Labor and Employ­ment Depart­ment, about the five dan­gers of water cool­er talk at your small busi­ness and how to pre­vent them.


The U.S. Equal Employ­ment Oppor­tu­ni­ty Com­mis­sion (EEOC) enforces fed­er­al laws that make dis­crim­i­na­tion against a job appli­cant or employ­ee ille­gal based on sev­er­al fac­tors like age, gen­der and reli­gion to name a few.

They inves­ti­gate claims made by employ­ees who feel they’ve been wronged and have the right to start law­suits.

Unlawful Discrimination

Small busi­ness­es with at least 15 employ­ees or more are cov­ered by these EEOC laws. Hav­ing a clear pol­i­cy in place is your best defense.

“Employ­ers can, and should, have poli­cies that pro­hib­it employ­ees from engag­ing in unlaw­ful dis­crim­i­na­tion, harass­ment, retal­i­a­tion and bul­ly­ing, or oth­er­wise mak­ing threats of work­place vio­lence,” Fried­man says.

Low Morale

Amer­i­ca is a diverse place with dif­fer­ent cul­tures and view­points. Allow­ing peo­ple to dis­cuss things like reli­gious pref­er­ences at work can alien­ate work­ers and ulti­mate­ly affect your bot­tom line. Pri­vate employ­ers have a right to set lim­its for what employ­ees talk about.

“Con­trary to what you might believe, there is no right to free speech in pri­vate work­places. The First Amend­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion pro­hibits the gov­ern­ment, not pri­vate employ­ers, from lim­it­ing free speech,” Fried­man says.

High Turn Over

Not hav­ing a prop­er pol­i­cy in place that is enforced open­ly can actu­al­ly cost you top peo­ple. If employ­ees feel their con­cerns about dis­crim­i­na­tion and hos­tile work envi­ron­ments won’t be tak­en seri­ous­ly, they can give up and look for oth­er jobs.

A Bad Reputation

Dam­ag­ing water cool­er talk can even find its way into cyber­space through social media and do dam­age to your company’s rep­u­ta­tion there. Fried­man says there’s a fine line to walk but one that small busi­ness­es need to con­sid­er.

“While employ­ers can­not have a rule pro­hibit­ing employ­ees from express­ing their opin­ions on social media, they can have a rule that any post­ed con­tent not vio­late the let­ter or spir­it of the company’s poli­cies against dis­crim­i­na­tion, harass­ment and retal­i­a­tion.” she says.

Small busi­ness­es can also have a rule that states employ­ees need to be clear their opin­ions are their own when post­ing about or pro­mot­ing prod­ucts from their employ­er. They also need to clear­ly iden­ti­fy them­selves as employ­ees.


Dis­crim­i­na­to­ry ban­ter at your work­place can get out of hand quick­ly. Nip­ping any kind of racial, gen­der biased or polit­i­cal talk before things get phys­i­cal is a legal pri­or­i­ty for small busi­ness­es. Employ­ers can be held liable even if they didn’t know about the con­duct in ques­tion.


How­ev­er, there are some excep­tions. For exam­ple, employ­ees are allowed to talk with each oth­er about terms and con­di­tions around their work. That kind of con­ver­sa­tion is cov­ered as free speech.

“Com­plaints about work­ing con­di­tions or unlaw­ful con­duct are pro­tect­ed too,” Fried­man adds.

While poli­cies that cur­tail free speech need to be care­ful­ly con­sid­ered for their effects on morale and any legal con­sid­er­a­tions, small busi­ness­es need open door poli­cies and train­ing in place. These need to be com­pli­ant with equal employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ty laws so every­one is on the same page.

Mak­ing sure your pol­i­cy is eas­i­ly acces­si­ble by includ­ing it in your employ­ee hand­book and hav­ing a copy avail­able pub­lic in places like the lunch­room.

Pho­to via Shut­ter­stock

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